As police around the country grapple with their role in the coronavirus response, they are confronted with another challenge: keeping their own officers safe.
The New York Police Department has already had more than 2,700 police officers and civilian workers call out sick with flu-like symptoms, according to news reports. Cities from Tampa to Boston to Los Angeles have also had officers fall ill with the virus. And a St. Paul police sergeant tested positive for COVID-19 after returning home from vacation last week, according to a department e-mail obtained by the Star Tribune.
He received the diagnosis before returning to work and assured colleagues that health officials do not believe he could have infected anyone before he left. The sergeant is now quarantined for two weeks with his immediate family.
“Like most of you, I accept the risks that come with this job, but I refuse to unnecessarily risk my family or the public,” he wrote, adding that he has no underlying health conditions. “I don’t mind being sick, but I’m infuriated that perhaps someone else’s negligence may have caused me to get sick. … Please remember how easily this virus infects, even when an individual does not have symptoms.”
Two Minneapolis police officers tested negative for coronavirus as calls grow louder for strengthening protections of cops and other front-line workers in the unfolding pandemic.
The officers were sent home after showing symptoms of the virus. MPD spokesman John Elder on Wednesday said that the officers self-quarantined until their test results came back. He said the department hasn’t yet considered testing officers as a precautionary step. “If we have people who are ill, we’re sending them to their medical providers,” he said.
In St. Paul, Chief Todd Axtell temporarily reinstituted the no-beard policy, ordering officers to shave their facial hair so masks will properly seal around their mouths. Patrol officers have been equipped with gloves, safety glasses and hand sanitizer, while detectives were instructed to keep an extra uniform in their office in case need to replace 911 responders who fall sick.
“I think they’re doing the best they can with the resources they have,” Police Federation President Paul Kuntz said of top brass’ response. New guidelines include recalibrating work schedules to limit interactions between officers on opposite shifts and enhanced social distancing techniques in the field, such as interviewing individuals outside their homes.
“When people call 911, our officers are going to respond — it might just look a little different,” said St. Paul department spokesman Steve Linders. “We’re going to be there for [residents] when they need us.”
The St. Paul Fire Department on Friday plans to swear in 17 new firefighters — a month early — to push more first responders on the street. In recent days, more than 70 firefighters have reported potential exposure while dealing with patients exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, said Deputy Fire Chief Roy Mokosso. But all were wearing protective gear. Four firefighters have tested negative for the virus and six others are in self-quarantine due to recent travel, he said.
Meanwhile, Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher issued directives requiring patrol deputies to don N95 masks while they are out of their squad car on service calls that might require them to get within 6 feet of a person. Anyone arrested by their agency will also be placed in a surgical mask — whether they have symptoms or not — before being booked into jail.
“Being on the ‘front lines’ against an invisible enemy is something we are not accustomed to,” Fletcher wrote in an e-mail to staff. “Unfortunately, this enemy is equally deadly to the ones we normally see. You must protect yourself and your family for the next 100 days.”
On Thursday, a coalition of lawmakers and union officials held a news conference at the State Capitol to drum up support for expanding workers’ compensation protections for police officers, firefighters, nurses and corrections officers who test positive for COVID-19. Without these protections, first responders must prove that they contracted the virus on the job to qualify for paid sick benefits, the coalition said.
“I’m ashamed that we’re asking them not only to put their physical health on the line for us, but also their financial health,” said Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud. He and other speakers urged Gov. Tim Walz to issue an executive order creating a “workers’ comp presumption” for affected first responders.
Proponents had hoped those protections would be rolled into the $356 million emergency coronavirus aid package that Minnesota legislators are expected to pass Thursday, but it wasn’t included.
After Walz’s announcement last week ordering the closure of most nonessential businesses, Minneapolis police leaders issued a departmentwide directive outlining guidelines and procedures aimed at limiting officers’ exposure.
Minneapolis homicide detectives, who haven’t been given masks, have been forced to change their investigative techniques: for instance, keeping their distance at crime scenes and instructing masked officers on how to examine a body and look for evidence nearby. And interviews with suspects and witnesses are now mostly being done in the field instead of bringing them back to the station.
Chief Medaria Arradondo said in a statement this week that the department has begun to shift its patrol priorities based on the “expertise of our public health officials” to “optimize the benefits to all.”
“We will continue to look after our city by keeping it safe and we will lean into spaces that will allow us to assist our most vulnerable populations with an emphasis on our seniors and those experiencing homelessness,” he said.
If officers from a particular shift become ill, the department will backfill their positions with detectives and members of specialized units like the Community Engagement Team. Elder said the department also has mutual aid agreements with other local law enforcement agencies to help fill service gaps.
“[If] St. Paul gets hit, you may see Minneapolis officers in St. Paul, and vice versa,” Elder said, while adding that an internal audit revealed that fewer officers had called out sick in recent weeks compared to the same period last year. “We’re not seeing this rash of sickness that some people were expecting.”
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter: @StribJany
Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648 Twitter: @ByLizSawyer